Most people see dogs as “man’s best friend” or the joy of coming home at the end of the day. Dogs bring so much joy to individual’s lives and some even provide mental health support and guidance for those who have disabilities which I truly believe is a beautiful thing.
I wish I could say I feel the same way about dogs but unfortunately my amygdala kicks into gear anytime I see a dog. The amygdala is the part of your brain where your emotions, emotional behavior and motivation come into play. It’s where you hear the phrase “flight, fight or freeze” comes from.
Trauma often kicks the amygdala into gear. And it’s exactly what kicks into gear for me when I see a dog.
Before heading off to college, I was focused on working as much as possible to save up for school and hopefully be less in debt when I graduated. One way I made money was house/dog sitting for family friends. My neighbors were so supportive of me achieving my dreams that they called me to watch their dogs while they went away for spring break.
I was so excited to head on over and learn how to care for their dogs and make some new “woman’s best friends” while they were gone. I headed next door and knocked on the door eager to figure out the proper pet sitting techniques. One of the kids answered the door and as I said “hello” one of the dogs came flying out at me. He was aggressive and coming straight at me to attack me.
In the blink of an eye, I jumped back and the kids pulled the dog back into the house and slammed the door. I stood at the door for a minute or two stunned as to what to do. Do I ring the door bell again? Do I just wait? Trying to figure out what to do I looked down and noticed my shirt had been ripped in half and I felt the tears fall. I walked home crying and into my house where my mom was so confused as to what happened and just hugged me.
This is a trauma memory for me. I had to deal with the thought that if I had not jumped backwards it would have been my abdomen that would have been bitten and most likely scared for the rest of my life. And then I had to deal with the fact that I had agreed to take care of this animal and go back to learn how to take care of him. Luckily, that was not the case.
I know not all dogs are out to attack me. That is a reality thought I process all the time and even this dog did not truly mean to attack me. The dog had been abused by its previous owners and was reacting to his own trauma he experienced. Yeah, even animals have trauma.
And while I know most dogs are friendly, my amygdala is triggered whenever I encounter a dog.
The amygdala is so interesting to me. Science has shown there are basically three responses triggered when the amygdala is activated: fight, flight or freeze.
Flight: running away to safety, escaping the terror situation.
Fight: aggression is triggered and the boxing gloves come out.
Freeze: deer in headlights mode. You literally can’t figure out how to move.
The other night I was on a walk with my husband and out of nowhere I see a dog start sprinting towards us. The owner is calling for the dog to come back, my husband is yelling for the dog to go back to its owner, and I am cowering. I literally closed my eyes, moved my chin into my chest and wrapped myself with my arms. Freeze is my amygdala response.
Was I in real danger? Not at all. Two people were trying to protect me and I still was triggered. The trauma reaction rushed back into my brain and I went into my response mode. The whole event lasted less than 30 seconds but that 30 seconds took me 10 minutes to calm down from.
When people talk about trauma and facing a traumatic incident, it’s important to give space for them to process. Trauma has different responses from each of us because we all have our own amygdala that controls our emotional behavioral response.
And trauma never truly goes away. We can process it and come to terms with it to an extent, but it’s wired into our brain. It’s not easy for someone to just forget about it and move on because it has been imprinted into the brain and given a way to react when reminded of the event.
Whether you have friends who have trauma or even maybe yourself who has faced a traumatic event or life, give grace, remind yourself and others to breathe, utilize those phrases that remind you that you are now safe or you have the tools to get yourself to safety, and let your amygdala respond the way it needs to.